Reader David wants to know when people first started thickening pastry cream with corn starch. That’s a question I can answer: 1837.
Or so. 1837 was the year that Dr. Alfred Bird invented his famous “eggless custard.” Dr. Bird is a fascinating character from history, who might have labored in obscurity as a pharmacist in Birmingham, England had it not been for his wife’s delicate digestion. It was because of that that Bird invented corn starch (or corn flour as the British say). Well, he didn’t technically invent the flour, but he was the first person to use it as a thickener for liquids.
History records that Bird simply could not bear to see his wife, who was afflicted both with a love of custard and an allergy to eggs, go without dessert. Eggless custard — basically sweetened and vanilla-scented milk thickened with cornstarch — was the fruit of many long months of labor, though for several years it remained a private household pleasure. Eventually the praise of dinner guests convinced Dr. Bird that there was a market for his custard, and so he founded Alfred Bird & Sons Ltd. to make and market the product. The company and the product are around to this day.
And of course cornstarch has gone on to become a pastry kitchen staple, where it is fundamental to every pastry cream recipe I know. Why? First, because gelated (read: “dispersed”) starch molecules reduce the flow of liquid in pastry cream, giving it firmness and body even though it’s a loose, “stirred” custard. Second, for many of the same reasons it binds up water in a custard, keeping it from weeping. Lastly, it keeps egg proteins from clumping up as temperatures rise thus making pastry cream somewhat curdle-resistant.
Of course corn starch and Bird’s custard weren’t the only arrows in the Bird food chemistry quiver. He went on to invent baking powder, among other things. Quite the talented pharmacist, no?